US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and I have a few things in common. To start, we are members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. — the first (and finest) historically Black sorority. Thirty years may separate our entrance into this sisterhood (Harris joined in the Spring of 1986; and I did in 2016), but we both had the honour of being a part of a community that centres us in a world that continues to push us to the back.
Like Harris, many women of Alpha Kappa Alpha are “firsts.” Minnejean Brown was one of the first Black children to integrate Little Rock, AR, leading to the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. Katherine Johnson was the first Black woman to attend West Virginia University and went on to become one of the first Black scientists at NASA. Sharon Pratt was the first Black woman mayor of a major US city. And now Harris is the first woman, Black person, and South Asian person to be elected to the office of Vice President of the United States.
Aside from their success and Alpha Kappa Alpha membership, these “first” women and I have something else in common: we all have a light complexion that indisputably opens doors darker-skinned Black people historically haven’t been able to walk through. From the brown paper bag test to Hollywood casting that favours fairer skin, America is rooted in systems that reinforce colourism and protect narratives of white supremacy. Often, the narrative is that proximity to whiteness is inherently deserving of more trust and access. If you’re light-skinned, you’re seen as more beautiful, intelligent, and kind. As Kamala Harris is set to be inaugurated into her historic position this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the privilege that comes with being lighter, and the opportunities colourism can afford to certain Black people.
This isn’t to minimise the experiences or contributions of these people, but instead, to shine a light on how our society rewards fairer skinned people — and how we let them.
I’ve experienced this firsthand. Though I walk through the world indisputably as a Black woman, I experience far less blatant racism than my darker-skinned family and friends. In high school, I remember being racially profiled in stores, but only when my then-boyfriend or darker-skinned friends were present. Alone, my presence seemed to present no threat. Later, when I began speaking out about police brutality and other forms of racism in my work as an activist and strategist, I would learn that the most prominent activists tend to be light-skinned while darker activists are more vilified or deemed “polarising”. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, colourism impacts earning potential, who is seen as more desirable in the dating world and who is profiled as a criminal to police. Thus, it’s Black people who look like me that largely become the ones amplified and offered token seats at the table.
This mindset is harmful because it means that when “we” take steps forward, it’s only some of us who actually do. In a world where our livelihood is contingent upon the masks we wear, playing into white supremacy’s hand isn’t subversive or liberatory at all. Colourism incentivises Black people to assimilate deeper into the white dominant culture; we begin to believe the lie that lighter skinned Black people are the best shots at navigating systems of power, leaving behind those most impacted by these anti-Black systems. This isn’t to minimise the experiences or contributions of these people, but instead, to shine a light on how our society rewards fairer skinned people — and how we let them.
The fact that Barack Obama, our first Black President, and Harris, our first Black Vice President, are biracial and light skinned is no accident. You can look beyond politics to see this trend too. In 1958, Lena Horne was the first African-American woman to be nominated for a Tony Award. In 1974, Beverly Johnson was the first Black model to make it onto the cover of Vogue. And in 2002, Halle Berry became the first (and only) Black woman to win Best Actress at the Oscars. Consider in 2016, when Zoe Saldana was cast to play Nina Simone in a biopic about the singer, even though she needed prosthetics and darkened makeup to match Simone’s distinct features. There are dozens of other examples of colourism when it comes to the casting and firsts in Hollywood and other industries. Tokenism rooted in colourism is a more polite, but still dangerous, way of protecting hierarchy.
Colourism is not a new concept and yet, it has barely been addressed in mainstream media when it comes to VP-elect Harris. The moment Joe Biden was announced as the Democratic candidate for President, pundits began debating which Black women were viable options for his VP. Brilliant women like Stacey Abrams and Rep. Val Demings were cast aside, quickly deemed “too risky” for the predominantly white electorate. And though it wasn’t explicitly said, I can guess it had a lot to do with the texture of their hair and deep colour of their skin. The NYPost even went so far as to call Abrams “the most preposterous vice presidential pick ever.”
Colourism is harmful because it means that when “we” take steps forward, it’s only some of us who actually do.
If history is any indication, it was clear that America would only be interested in a Black woman Vice President who white people were comfortable with — specifically someone like Keisha Lance Bottoms or Kamala Harris, aka a beautiful, light skinned, thin, and successful Black woman. And in Harris’ case, one with a white partner. Again this isn’t to say that they didn’t work hard for the achievements they have, but so did many others. Whether we admit it or not, physical appearance indicates so much about the chances we are afforded. Black people with darker skin and bigger bodies have severely increased chances of being perceived as aggressive and thus treated in violent ways, especially when it comes to mass incarceration. Maternal mortality rates show us that those same physical features lead to Black women’s pain being ignored. Every system that negatively impacts the Black community has an exacerbated effect on darker-skinned individuals, who are seen as violent, unruly, and uneducated.
The bottom line is that light-skinned people and white people need to be the ones leading this conversation, but we know why they don’t. Those who benefit from the privileges afforded to them from oppressive systems do the least to upend these systems. In the case of colourism, it’s light-skinned Black people who benefit from being the only Black person in the room. Too often, we accept that progress must be incremental and that it’s better to have a few people in the door than none, even if those people are only the ones consistently considered palatable to white people. And when darker skinned Black people break those glass ceilings, they are rarely as recognised and memorialised as their lighter counterparts. Think back just a few years to Michelle Obama, a highly accomplished woman in her own right, who became a prime example of this throughout her husband’s tenure in the Oval Office.Yes, we’ve come a long way but not far enough, as the first Black First Lady in US history still battles racist and sexist tropes likening her to animals. She wasn’t an instant #girlboss inspiration story because many in white America (particularly outside of the fashion and coastal media worlds) refused to see themselves in her and her presence didn’t comfort those who were facing a new vision of power in America.
So what do you do if you are a light-skinned “first”? How does Harris use her privilege for the betterment of all Black women? In her work, she has to centre Black people more marginalised and vulnerable to anti-Blackness. In any system of oppression, the onus is on those who benefit to address the issue head on. The responsibility is on us to be intra-community allies. As Kamala shared during her Vice President acceptance speech, “I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.” In many ways, Vice President Harris has done this by appointing Karine Jean-Pierre, a dark skinned Black and queer woman, as her chief of staff during the campaign cycle and now as the Deputy Press Secretary. I hope this is just the beginning of Harris defying the norm and empowering those more progressive than her; those who are even more connected to the urgency of the issues we are facing.
We should always aspire to tell fuller stories about our community and pass the mic to empower others, especially those with something to say who are often deemed too threatening to be heard. For me, that means knowing when to take a step back and create space for people in more criminalised bodies. I choose not to sit on panels as the only Black person because I’m not representative of the most marginalised among us. When I am invited to the table, I will instead suggest peers uniquely positioned to contribute to those conversations. This is just one example of how I attempt to level the playing field, but the reality is that I’m never doing enough.
Colourism is a centuries-old form of oppression, so there will always be more to do, more to learn, and more opportunities to open the door for those standing next to us. To the light skinned women reading: don’t apologise for who you are, but never allow yourself to be lifted at the expense of your sisters. We have nothing to lose but our chains.
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